Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and George Barris created a new visual language that captured the unbridled spirit of Southern California starting in the late 1950s. In print, on cars and on screens big (film) and small (TV), their artistry spoke to youth culture and served as a sort of link between the Beat generation and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene in and around L.A., then swept across the country and the world. Tony Mostrom captures the atmosphere of that kooky cultural moment.
If you were a minimally hip person living in the hyped-up, giddy atmosphere of L.A. in the early ‘60s, you would be aware of certain things flying around in the air culturally in that groovy, rockin’ and twistin’ place, the ever-dependable source of cultural earthquakes as well as real ones.
Some of these kooky cultural currents included: the “classic movie monster” revival craze, lots of stereotypical beatniks and Kerouac-like “searchers” on TV (Route 66), hot rods, crew cuts, the Dodgers, Boris Karloff, and of course surfing and surf music, which included a string of hits by the Beach Boys, who grew up in Hawthorne…wherever that was.
(And for the slightly older set, there was buttoned-up, jazz-hip TV talk show host Steve Allen, who’d once had Jack Kerouac himself on his show, reading from On the Road. Wow…high culture on TV in Hollywood, who’da thunk it?)
But dig it, dad: those kuh-razy kustomized kars known as hot rods could actually be seen on the streets of L.A. any ol’ day of the week, ripping up the Sunset Strip and scaring old ladies, or idling at Tiny Naylor’s famous drive-in hamburger joint at the famous corner of La Brea and Sunset, a decades-old teen hangout that was always jumpin’…
…or best of all you might see them toolin’ down the Pacific Coast Highway in all their loud, rattling, candy-colored open-topped glory, some groovy couple smiling and cruising up toward Malibu, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach or maybe even Frisco, the endless winds whipping their little bangs backward in the sunlight.
To quote from an article in the Wall Street Journal, which coincidentally ran just today while I was writing this: “A hot rod is a vehicle modified for style and speed, often with a V-8 engine, often based on a 1920s or ‘30s car.” True. In fact, I just saw one this afternoon, a beauty driving down PCH just north of San Juan Capistrano. It was a gleaming white “kustomized” 1932 Ford, lowered and chopped and supercharged, the exposed engine all shining intricate chrome as it peeled past…
And dig it: this goofy little song clip from 1959 is a good taste of what the atmosphere was like in lighthearted, early-‘60s youthful L.A., before it all got blown apart by race riots and assassinations later on in the decade:
If you thought about it for a second, where would you guess “hot rodding” originated? Well of course here, in good old built-for-cars L.A., with its wide-open deserts just a short (driving) distance away. Out there on the sandy flats, hyper-jazzed up young men with lots of post-WWII energy to burn (and mechanical skills picked up during two wars) could race around in their chopped, lowered, modified, souped-up and done-over 1930s Fords without running the risk of killing unsuspecting civilian drivers on L.A.’s streets.
On an historical note: stock car racing, which is different and much older than hot rodding, goes way, way back in Southern California history…back to the pre-WWI days of organized, competitive road racing that took place on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where young speed demons like Barney Oldfield careened recklessly along muddy tracks, some of which ran along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with large crowds of spectators essentially risking their lives just by being there, watching these crazy nuts risk death purely for the sake of…well, speed. So there’s always been something in the air here in Southern California…namely, gas fumes and smog.
And how weird it is to hear this reckless death-defying being celebrated later on, in a ‘60s song by Jan and Dean:
The post-WWII explosion of customized, “chopped” and lowered cars with cartoonish giant tires and weird, broccoli-stalked engines that looked like they sprouted out of the car hood like the demon baby in Alien was thanks in part to two veteran L.A. car customizers, both of whom were working for years in different parts of town: George Barris, who started out in Culver City, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, working in semi-industrial Maywood south of downtown L.A.
By the late ‘50s both of these seasoned kar kustomizers had turned a good half a ton of old ‘30s Fords and Chevys into souped-up hot rods between them. For their kool kustomers they’d build anything, the zanier the better, and these sometimes included the movie studios, should a film call for some extreme or funky design:
Barris, for example, designed a bizarre non-moving, er, vehicle for the 1960 futuristic film The Time Machine, while his bread- and-butter jobs involved altering normal, everyday civilian cars so they’d crash, crumple and buckle more easily, for juvenile delinquent films like Hot Rod Girls…
Introduction to the car stylings of Ed Roth by “Pirate” Larry Roberts:
Big Daddy Roth, meanwhile, was more than just a grease monkey; he was also a compulsive cartoonist. By 1959, the L.A. native was hawking T-shirts emblazoned with his squiggly “Weird-Oh” monster characters at car shows and in the pages of hot rod car magazines like Car Craft.
These grotesque sweaty and salivating, Basil Wolverton-esque characters were usually shown charging forward in souped-up tornado-like “rods.” Roth’s wigged-out cartoons, especially of his main character the Rat Fink, had tons of fans and helped to spawn the zany “ugly monsters” craze that invaded the pages of comic books, hot rod magazines, the toy industry, and TV throughout the 1960s.
(For an in-depth portrait of the great Basil Wolverton, one of Mad magazine’s first cover artists, see editor Alan Bisbort’s piece here…)
Roth’s rising public profile led most profitably to a line of “Big Daddy” Roth hot rod model kits, put out by the Revell company. The most popular were replicas of Roth’s famous kustomized ‘rods, which he called the Beatnik Bandit and the Outlaw, both of which had wowed the crowds earlier, at car shows (writer Tom Wolfe once called Big Daddy Roth “the Salvador Dali of the movement…a prankster”).
These kits-for-kids sold for a dollar each back in the mid-‘60s (that’s $10,000.00 in today’s money…I’m kidding!), at your friendly neighborhood hobby shop.
(Come to think of it, the ‘60s were probably the Golden Age of hobbies for Americans both young and old. Remember aging and gray-haired “model train enthusiasts?”)
Big toy companies like Mattel and the highly successful New York-based company Aurora were also taking note of the vogue for monsters and hot rods. Aurora had already made a killing in 1964 with their, er, “serious” monster models, based on the classic Universal Movie Monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Would it make sense if they tried to…?
Yes, certain creative minds were percolating in L.A. and New York…to the tune, no doubt, of endless Maxwell House coffee commercials…
…and in the ultimate “sincerest-form-of-flattery” department, Aurora turned around and issued their own daffy “monsters-in-hot-rods” series of model kits, a clear and present Barris-and-Roth ripoff. These came out in 1965.
And what did George Barris and Ed Big Daddy Roth think of all this? Well, one can only imagine, though they probably couldn’t have cared less since both were doing quite alright…
George Barris was born George Salapatos in Chicago. He grew up in the small town of Roseville near Sacramento.
He started tinkering with cars and altering them with his buddies before he was even out of high school. Always a busy but personally lowkey genius, he was the opposite of Big Daddy Roth’s flamboyant and publicity-loving personality.
In a field populated by hopped-up, creative “character” type designers like Roth and Von Dutch, Barris avoided the limelight, but he and his “kustomizing” team (Barris Kustom) made up for this with spectacularly high-profile car creations, which ultimately dwarfed Roth’s in the public mind thanks to some major-league placement in the ‘60s media firmament.
Basically, Barris and company “went Hollywood” all the way and back (Roth, not so much).
Remember the 1966 Batmobile? That’s a Barris creation:
You won’t be surprised to learn either that the famous Monkeemobile was a Barris creation, which also became a scale model kit…but of course!
…and so was this daffy, goofy construction for the ‘60s band Paul Revere and the Raiders…
Most famously though, the team at Barris Kustom created the 1965 Munster Koach, built for the (ahem) “monster kitsch” TV series The Munsters, known to some as “the poor man’s Addams Family,” though the Munsters had the much cooler car:
Barris, it seems, trumped Big Daddy and all the others in the monster car department with this spectacular show-biz coup…er, coupe. Americans loved it and the show. Here the goofy, giddy hot rod craze and the movie monster fad became one, a kultural kustom kar marriage made in Hollywood-slash-Halloween hell…
The Koach “sported a blood-red velvet interior,” according to an online car geek website, which mentions another incredible factoid: “Built in just 21 days for $18,000, the Munster Koach could hit a top speed of 150 miles per hour.” (Hmm…sure but when and where?)
Big Daddy Roth’s cartoon mascot the Rat Fink, meanwhile, was that rare bird, a cartoon character that didn’t seem to need a cartoon show or a comic strip in which to cavort and demonstrate what he was about.
But his “icky” image (and let’s face it, this stuff was marketed to boys-only back then) still caught on big with the high-on-Coke (I’m talking about the drink, now) California car enthusiasts of the mid-‘60s, who bought up RF T-shirts by the thousands.
Even the name Rat Fink filtered through “the culture” so thoroughly that by 1965 it was a popular insult that meant…well, a jerk:
Incidentally, there’s no evidence of any bad feeling between Ed Big Daddy Roth and George Barris. Both were hyper-successful and content, though Roth once wrote that he was “the kind of guy you like to hate.” A rat fink, in other words…
Barris rode off onto the proverbial sunset in 2015, dying at his comfortable and cozy home in Encino in the San Fernando Valley, lionized and celebrated by the car community and fans of Hollywood nostalgia (but more important than that, I grew up in Encino, as did Charles Manson scholar Nickolas Schreck…just in case you were wondering).
And strange to think that after making such an earthquake of an impact on popular culture Ed Roth, the ol’ Beatnik Bandit himself, was starting to feel burnt-out by the early ‘70s and decided to settle down…and not just “settle down” into a slightly slower schedule, either. He pulled up stakes, left his happy Southern California kar kingdom and moved to Utah, where he (here it comes) converted to Mormonism.
One can just hear his dear old Jewish mother back home in Beverly Hills: “My son, the Mormon!?”
Today the legacies of Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth live on, at car shows and at institutions like the popular Peterson Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., not to mention the weekend vintage car get-togethers that still take place on weekends at Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant in Burbank, where today’s thriving, loose-knit brotherhood of West Coast kustom kar lovers show off their prized works of automotive, chopped, lowered, hemi-engined, streamlined, cherry-red-lacquered four-wheeled and even three-wheeled dragsters and souped-up ’55 Chevys.
Talk about time machines!